By Frederick H. Lowe
Chicago Alderman Jason C. Ervin, a big man, weighing at least 300 pounds, was hard to miss in the crowd of more than 100 who gathered in front of the two-story frame house at 4710 W. Erie to protest the deadly shooting by police of two of the building’s residents.
The day after Christmas, Chicago police officer Robert Rialmo shot and killed Bettie Jones, 55, and Quintonio LeGrier, 19, after responding to a call to quell a domestic dispute. LeGrier, who reportedly suffered from mental illness, lived on the second floor with his father, Antonio. Jones lived on the first floor. The house is located on a quiet street of African-American and Hispanic families in Ervin’s 28th Ward, but the day after the shootings, the street was noisy, filled with reporters, protesters and the curious.
Protesters of every color stood in the freezing cold, chanting anti-police slogans and carrying placards; some wore T-shirts with “Rahm Has Let Us Down,” printed across the front along with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s photograph. Rialmo claimed he shot and killed LeGrier, an undergraduate engineering student after he swung a metal baseball at him several times.
A lawsuit filed against the Chicago police by Antonio LeGrier, Quintonio’s father, claimed LeGrier was not armed and never posed a threat to Rialmo. Antonio called police for help with his son. Quintonio also called police on his father, leading to the tragic set of events exacerbated by a police operator’s bungled handling of Quintonio’s plea for help.
Rialmo also shot and killed Jones, mother and grandmother. Antonio had asked Jones to open the front door for police when they arrived. City officials claimed Jones was shot by accident. “A bullet is not the appropriate response for a person with a bat,” said Ervin who was dressed in an overcoat and a fedora.
He looked sad and distraught. There were no aides surrounding him as he shared his thoughts with me, no entourage and no one pushing to get him in front of the television cameras. Many didn’t know he was the alderman. Rev. Jesse Jackson walked passed him and did not say a word.
Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed Ervin 28th Ward alderman in January 2011 to fill a vacancy. In February 2011, voters elected Ervin to a four-year term. Ervin like the rest of the aldermen on the council voted in November 2011 to close six of the city’s 12 public mental health clinics. The clinics closed in April 2012, putting employees out of work and leaving many patients to fend for themselves. Though Ervin and other aldermen voted to close the clinics as part of a larger budgetary process, he has now had an awakening about the mental health crisis facing the city and the impact of such budget cuts.
This month – four years after the six clinics were closed — Ervin held a news conference at City Hall to announce the introduction of the “Mental Health Safety Net Ordinance.” The ordinance was introduced in the Committee on Health and the Environmental Protection in January, following LeGrier’s death. It now has 29 sponsors.
The ordinance would require the Chicago Department of Public Health to join three managed care networks within six months, which would allow the remaining six public mental health clinics to receive reimbursement for providing services and mean more revenue for the department.
D. Jo Patton, director of special projects for Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents workers at the city clinics, suggested that the department should join County Care, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Aetna.
The ordinance also would require the department to do more outreach to residents so they will be more likely to take advantage of the services offered by the remaining six public mental health clinics. Collectively these six clinics have a capacity to serve 4,000 individuals, but they only are serving 2,000 individuals currently, Patton said. The ordinance would also require the clinics to hire an adequate number of psychiatrists.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel had framed the clinic closings as a way to save money. But supporters of the public clinics – including Sheriff Tom Dart — think they actually save the city money by providing needed treatment and helping people with mental illness avoid jail, emergency rooms and other crisis situations. Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa of the 35th ward recently sent a letter to his colleagues calling for the closed clinics’ reopening, following the shooting of LeGrier and Jones (Ramirez-Rosa’s office did not respond to requests for comment). Ervin believes that closing the clinics, something he voted to do to save money, has had negative consequences.
“Recent tragic events such as the fatal shooting of Quintonio LeGrier have shone a stark light on the urgent need to reverse years of cuts and closures to public health mental health services in Chicago,” he said.